A firearm, when paired with the right character and actor, can become more iconic than the movie itself. Sometimes it’s a happy accident, sometimes it’s a carefully considered plan, but when it clicks, pop culture doesn’t forget. The character and gun become inseparable. These are some of the most iconic guns to ever grace the big screen.
“Dirty Harry” Callahan | Smith & Wesson Model 29 Revolver
What would Dirty Harry be without his hand cannon? Well, he’d still be Clint Eastwood, but he’d just be another tough-guy movie detective. The now-iconic speech delivered in the original “Dirty Harry” (1971) labeled the .44 Magnum as the most powerful handgun in the world and forever bonded Harry Callahan with the Smith & Wesson Model 29 Revolver.
After the film hit big at the box office and Dirty Harry became a pop culture icon, demand for the Model 29 skyrocketed. S&W responded, putting the discontinued revolver back into production where it has remained since. Heck, even Mr. PPK James Bond used a nickel-plated Model 29 in “Live and Let Die,” released later that same year.
But Callahan’s gun of choice wasn’t always a .44 Magnum (or even a revolver). According to an early version of the script, he was originally supposed to carry around a compact 12-gauge shotgun in a case. The character was also going to be played by Frank Sinatra until he dropped out due to a wrist injury. Yeah, that would have been a little different.
Callahan would go on to carry his Model 29 in four sequels, which are all pretty good flicks, but none quite measures up to the original. The “Go ahead, make my day,” scene from “Sudden Impact” comes close though.
John J. Rambo | M60 Machine Gun
In 1985 “Rambo: First Blood Part II” created an international pop culture icon with the character of Vietnam Veteran and former Green Beret John J. Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone. Suddenly, every action hero was a one-man-army with a machine gun. Rambo and his M60 defined action movies for the rest of the ’80s and beyond.
In the big-action finishes of the first two movies Rambo uses versions of the M60 machine gun. It’s a firearm as synonymous with the Vietnam War as the M16, creating the iconic image of the character firing the big gun with one hand and feeding it a belt of ammo with the other. Even though Rambo didn’t use an M60 in any of the next three movies, the image endures.
A wave of Rambo merchandise followed the film’s release, you know, for kids. There was even a Saturday morning cartoon. Yes, really.
At some point, some artist merged two publicity stills of Stallone—one of him holding an M60 with ammo belts crisscrossing his chest, and a different photo of him holding an RPG launcher—for a widely used illustration. On eBay you can still find vintage lunchboxes, coloring books, and toys emblazoned with Rambo holding what looks like an M60 with an RPG inexplicably attached to the muzzle.
Matthew Quigley | Shiloh Sharps 1874 Rifle
In “Quigley Down Under” (1990), the titular Matthew Quigley’s (Tom Selleck) trade is as a sharpshooter, pure and simple. Most of the fun of this movie is watching him prove how good of a shot he is, over and over.
However, I always suspected ol’ Quigley might be kind of a moron. He travels all the way to 1880s Australia from the U.S. to take a job that he knows nothing about, other than it requires exceptional sharpshooter skills. But it never occurs to him that his new employer might want him to shoot people he doesn’t want to shoot? He also beats the crap out of a rich dude in his own dining room, throws him out his own window, and is shocked when his large gang of armed ruffians leave him in the Outback for dead.
But the way he applies for the job is pretty badass. He mails in the posting with a tight group of six shot through it. Below the group was written simply, “M. Quigley, 900 yards.” The rifle Quigley regularly impresses people with is a character unto itself, with a whole speech describing its attributes.
“It’s a lever-action breech loader. The usual barrel length’s 30 inches. This one has an extra four. It’s converted to use a special .45-caliber 110-grain metal cartridge with a 540-grain paper patch bullet. It’s fitted with double-set triggers, and a Vernier [ladder rear] sight. It’s marked up to 1,200 yards, but this’n shoots a might farther.”
The reproduction of the Sharps rifle, which was originally built from about 1850 to 1881, was made by Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing Company. Want to live out your own Quigley fantasy? You can at the annual Matthew Quigley Buffalo Rifle Match in Montana.
James Bond | Walther PPK Pistol
What would a master spy be without his super covert pistol hidden beneath his impeccably tailored dinner jacket? Let’s get something out of the way: James Bond is a terrible spy. I mean, come on, he uses his real name, gets captured all the time, every “sidekick” he’s ever had gets killed—hell, they made a whole show about how crappy a spy he is. But the character endures, and so does his Walther PPK Pistol.
In the clip above from the first Bond film, “Dr. No” (1962), Bond (rest in peace, Sean Connery) trades his Beretta M1934 in 9mm Short for what the dialog says is a Walther PPK in .32 ACP, because it’s more powerful. There are two things wrong here. The gun Bond actually gets and uses in that movie is the older Walther PP, and the .32 ACP is not more powerful than the 9mm Short. However, in the book, the PPK replaces a Beretta 418 in .25 ACP. While the Beretta model changed, the bit of dialog from the book did not.
The PPK’s fame as the Bond gun has kept it popular and in production through the six decades that have passed since the first 007 movie. In fact, all six actors who have played Bond across 25 movies (soon to be 26 in 2021) have used the PPK on screen, and it has only been absent from five of the films.
In “Moonraker” (1979) Bond doesn’t use a pistol at all. In “Never Say Never Again” (1983) and “Octopussy” (1983), Bond carries a Walther P5, and in “The World Is Not Enough” (1999) and “Die Another Day” (2002), Bond carries a Walther P99.
Martin Riggs and John McClane | Beretta 92 Pistol
In 1987, Mel Gibson starred in his breakout role as Detective Sargeant Martin Riggs of the LAPD in “Lethal Weapon” alongside a Beretta pistol. The model he uses in the first LW film is actually a 92F, but he carries a 92FS in three sequels.
Much is made of Rigg’s chosen sidearm and it provides an immediate contrast with his older partner Det. Sgt. Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), who carries a Smith & Wesson Model 19 Revolver. At the time, the Beretta was pretty much the peak of handgun technology for anyone who hadn’t heard of the Glock 17, which was only a few years old and still fairly uncommon in the U.S.
Even Murtaugh had to admire it when the two first meet. When Riggs asks him what he carries, he says, “Four-inch Smith.”
“Six-shooter, huh? Lotta old-timers carry those,” Riggs replies.
At the time, many police departments and other law enforcement agencies in the U.S. were beginning to transition from revolvers to semi-auto handguns with higher capacities and faster reload speeds following hard lessons learned from the 1986 FBI Miami Shootout. Many departments, including the LAPD, chose the Beretta 92FS, just like the U.S. Army did in 1985.
The following year, another new action hero was born when the original “Die Hard” was released starring Bruce Willis as displaced NYPD Detective John McClane. McClane gets trapped in an LA office building on Christmas Eve, facing off alone against a gang of heavily armed, hostage-taking, terrorist/robbers—and one of the hostages is his wife.
Through the entire ordeal, McClane is armed only with his Beretta 92FS for defense, and later, for offense. When the terrorists attack, he grabs the pistol before grabbing his shoes, which turns out to be the wise choice, because it’s better to be barefoot and armed than the other way around.
Sure, he picks up and loses a few terrorist MP5s along the way and cuts the hell out of his feet, but the Beretta is with him right to the end where he tapes the pistol to his back in a rouse to make his last two 9mm rounds count. McClane would use the same pistol in two sequels before switching handguns in the two most recent installments, of which fans do not speak.
Sonny Crockett | Dornaus & Dixon Bren Ten Pistol
When Miami Vice hit the airwaves in 1984, it had a lot of people wearing bright-colored shirts under white sport jackets who probably shouldn’t have. In the gun world, the Bren Ten was the absolute shit, and it had a starring role as Sonny Crockett’s (Don Johnson) distinctive go-to sidearm. It was modern, visually striking, and chambered for the hot new 10mm cartridge, or so fans think.
The Bren Ten was built by the ill-fated Dornaus & Dixon company and was essentially an overbuilt and beefed up CZ 75 pistol that was chambered for the original 10mm Norma Auto cartridge, not the 10mm Auto we know and love today. The Bren Ten’s cartridge was a bit longer and loaded to higher pressures than the 10mm Auto, which had a tendency to wear pistols out quickly.
Regardless, the pistols used in the show were never 10mm guns. They were made specifically for director and producer Michael Mann by Tom Dornaus as prop guns for the show with recoil springs and barrels designed for.45 ACP blanks. The slides were then chromed at Mann’s request so they would look more distinct on film.
With its unique trigger guard shape, eye-catching finish, and big ol’ bore, the gun certainly stood out against other pistols that were commonly featured in Hollywood in the early ’80s. Johnson only carried the Bren in his Galco shoulder holster for the first two seasons of the show, until Dornaus & Dixon went under and the gun was discontinued.
Crockett switched to a Smith & Wesson 645 in .45 ACP for the third and fourth seasons. The S&W was brand new, and the showrunners wanted the character to have a state-of-the-art sidearm rather than a discontinued one.